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Community Q&A: Talking Respectfully to Your Toddler

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a three-year-old daughter, and I am concerned about the frequency with which I lose patience and “talk down” to her. My own father was very judgmental and intolerant of mistakes and inefficiencies. My daughter is three, and she is the epitome of inefficient!

As much as I try not to, I sound like my dad way too much. I hear the disapproving tone in my voice and know I shouldn’t use it, but I get so annoyed with her at times. I don’t want to raise her to be afraid to make mistakes and I want her to have positive self-esteem. How do I stop myself from repeating the patterns I was raised with?

Frayed Patience

24 thoughts on “Community Q&A: Talking Respectfully to Your Toddler”

  1. I’ve never been great at patience, but I’ll share what I try.

    1. Try to record what you are saying to yourself when you lose your patience. What is is your self talk? My guess is that you’re telling yourself a story that doesn’t capture the full truth of the situation. It might be a story about your daughter–“She’s deliberately messing with me” or “I can’t let her do this, or I’ll lose control.” Or it might be a story about yourself–“I don’t have time for this” or “I can’t believe I’m having to say this.” Write down your actual thoughts in the moments when you lose it.

    2. Take time to consider what you’re saying to yourself. Are your stories valid? Do they reflect the person you want to be?

    3. If not, take the time to create a Personal Motivation Statement. This could be 3 or 4 statements that a.) refute the false stories that pop into your head; and b.) state what you really believe about yourself and your daughter. For example, “My daughter is a wonderful bundle of inefficiencies” or “I will model patience and attention. These times with my daughter are precious and brief.”

    4. Don’t kick yourself over your lapses. You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.

  2. I agree with what David has mentioned. Even i was like you at times with my young kids. But one day a thought came to my that do kids know how they are and how they have to be.

    I can give you a good example for this: my kids had a bad habit of shutting the doors hardly and i use to get annoyed and angry at them for that loud bang, but they never stopped doing that.

    One day i decided to show them how to close the door the right way. One of my son when he banged the door his usual way. i called him back opened the door and closed in a right way and asked him if he can do it. when he did, i asked him to do it every time the same way. Believe me from that time on they have changed and they do the thing right way.

    The most important thing that we do with our kids is communicate with them the right way.

    1. I was a big-time door banger. One day I came home from school, and my own bedroom door was gone;my father took it down. The real physical change of my environment made me immediately value not only my way gone posters, that were hanging on my door, but my intimacy, my privacy, my quiet space, and my needed solitude to rest and to re-energize. It also taught me first hand as a teenager the real personal and social consequences of my self-detrimental bursts of anger.

  3. Frayed,
    I agree with what is said above, and have some additional thoughts (with credit to Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline and the book “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline”, although this is my interpretation).
    1. What you focus on, you get more of – if you focus on her inefficient behaviors, you’ll continue to get more of them. Focus on the behavior you do want (like Aziz suggested, showing them how you want the door to be closed).
    2. Model the behaviors you want her to follow. Allow yourself to make mistakes, too.
    3. Reward small successes — a simple “You did it!” works wonders for my son (2 1/2) with a “fist bump”, high-five or hug.
    4. Before you speak, ask yourself why she’s doing what she’s doing — like David suggested — what stories are you telling yourself, versus what is REALLY happening?
    5. Then, get down on her level, ask her to look you in the eyes (I say “Let me see your big, brown eyes” or “Let me see your button nose”), and comment on what you observed versus how you feel about it then provide an alternative. I see you are getting dressed; Mommy is running late for work and I would like to help you learn to dress faster, here’s a fun trick for putting on your pants (put both legs in at the same time and jump up, for example).
    6. Make it a game — Who can clean up their toys faster? (I often challenge my son to see who can pick up the most toys — he always wins!)

    Give yourself a lot of credit for recognizing that you might be starting to repeat a pattern that you didn’t find encouraging or helpful growing up. You are willing to seek out alternatives for raising your child in a safe, loving environment and that alone means you are a great parent.

  4. When you say your 3 year old daughter is the “Epitome of inefficient” I have to wonder a bit if your expectations of a 3 year old aren’t a bit too high. She’s 3, not sure i have ever known any one to think a 3 year old should be efficient at anything. I have used a tone I have not ment to out of frustration but it is usually because i’m short om time and what my child did caused me toloose more of what i didn’t have. The other time is when I know what ever my child is doing could be harmful to him or her. I really think that it’s good to look at the times you have lost patients with her and ask yourself what part of what she did upset you. You willthen find your own triggers and be able to better react to them. We all say I’ll never be like Mom or Dad but we seem to always have those tendencies so look for your triggers in your daughters actions and although she is only three say to her, baby i know you probably don’t understand but when you do…. or say….. i find that it upsets Daddy becasue.Tell her in your own words why you are upset, let her know that you realize she is only three but, this upsets Daddy. Use a very smooth comfoting voice to tell her. She will not be afraid to make mistakes at this point becasue you will have created a safe way to explain your reasoning, but it will also help open the door to better more invovled conversations as hse get’s older.

  5. I can relate to Frayed’s situation and the sadness you feel as a parent when you don’t like how you react to your children. Like you my parents were critical and short tempered. All of the advice listed is quite good and I too read loads of books to try to improve my patience and parenting skills. I think all of that helped, but one of the most helpful things I did was to write a little prayer for myself, (it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs, go with what you’re comfortable with). In the prayer I asked my higher power to give me strength that day to be kind, loving and patient with my children. I kept it on my nightstand and every morning before I started my day I read it. Somehow during the day if I felt myself losing patience I would remember what I read in the morning and my attitude and actions would change. Almost like my higher power was taping me on the head and reminding me of who I wanted to be. Child rearing skills are great, but you need something “in the moment” to remind you to use them.

  6. Congratulations on recognizing that you’d like to change an unproductive habit! And wonderful comments above, too. Focus on what you want, examine your feelings when you catch yourself doing what you don’t want to do, show your daughter what and how you’d like her to do things, make your lessons fun.
    I think you can also schedule a weekly family meeting, where everyone gets equal input to a list of 3-5 rules. Because she’s only 3, your daughter might feel more empowered if you sit her on your lap while you’re creating this list, especially the first couple of times.
    First let her know two or three things she does and says that you’re proud of. Then let her know that you also have some concerns, because when she does such and such, you feel a strong emotion (anger, worry, fear, annoyance…), and you’d like her to do these other things instead. Don’t blame her for her actions. Rather, focus on the feelings you experience as a result of her actions.
    Once you’ve clearly verbally outlined your concerns, encourage her to respond with her own concerns. How do your emotional responses make her feel? How would she like you to respond instead? What suggestions does she have for you? I know she’s only 3, but even though her replies may be super-unsophisticated, it’s my experience that young children can also be surprisingly insightful.
    Finally, encourage her to help you begin a list of rules that everyone in the family gets to follow (not just her). Keep it a short list, five rules or less. For each rule, have her help you identify a consequence (never a punishment) for any rule-breaker. Most important, have her also help you identify a reward for every rule-follower. Try to keep the consequences something that everyone knows can also be a learning experience, something that helps build mutual respect (time-outs, an extra chore, something that recompenses the offended party); and celebrate every time anybody catches somebody else following a rule.
    You can change this list each week as you feel the need, as anybody in the family needs to address a new issue.

  7. I can vividly remember how frustrated I would be when I would take my then 3-year-old daughter (now, soon to be 21) to the grocery store on what I expected to be a quick in and out trip.

    After a series of experiences like that, it occurred to me that it would be awfully helpful if I let her know what I had planned. I knew what I wanted to do but she generally had no idea what was next. So I’d say something like, “We’re going to the store. I’ll park the car and we’re going to go in and get milk, eggs and bread. We’ll pay the cashier and then we’ll get back in the car and go home.” When there was a decision she could make, I’d offer her a choice like, “Would you like to ride in the cart or walk with me?”

    When we were going to do something new or different, I would let her know how she was expected to behave. For example, “We are going to a concert. When we’re in the theatre, we have to use quiet voices. When the music begins we’ll sit quietly and listen to the music. If we talk or fidget, we’ll disturb the other people in the theatre who want to hear the music.”

    Things went much more smoothly (most of the time!) when she knew what was coming and what was expected.

  8. Remember that anyone can father a child but it takes a special person to be a ‘Dad’. Your daughter is only 3, of course she is inefficient, thats what 3 year olds are. I can assure you it gets easier as they grow and mature. She may not remember what you say but she will remember how you make her feel. Whatever she does, she is not doing it on purpose to frustrate you, she requires patience, love and attention to grow into the person you would like her to be. Take the time to teach, demonstrate and interact with your daughter so she knows you are there for her and you are someone she trusts and can turn to when she needs someone. Nothing can replace quality time that you HAVE to set aside to spend with her. Maybe you are getting frustrated as you have too many other things on your mind and you are not in the moment with your daughter Right now your daughter is a sponge ready to learn and you have to teach with patience. A great parenting book is by Barbara Coloroso, “Giving your child Internal Discipline”. It is worth the read. Dave

  9. I agree completely with what David Maxfield has said. I just wanted to add this:

    Our parents’ voices become the voices in our head. Be sure to give your daughter the gift of affirming, loving, patient self-talk for her future.

  10. One morning when my daughter was four and my son was two, I walked into the kitchen to find them playing with their food at the table.

    So I hollered.

    My daughter put her hands on her hips and gave me a rebellious look, while my son stuck out his bottom lip and tears welled up in his eyes.

    That event really showed me an amazing truth: My kids are individuals, with unique personalities.

    I learned that gentle firm corrective guidance is sufficient for my son, who takes all criticism, including that from peers at school, very seriously. My daughter required more stern measures, making her deal each time with consequences of her actions.

    I don’t know the best way to handle an “inefficient” personality, other than the “countdown” approach. (“We’re leaving in (10, 5, 2) minutes, so get ready.”) All I know is it’s amazing how soon the personalities appear in those little ones, and the right balance of love and discipline will work every time.

  11. It’s really hard to raise a child, and we all have things we “could have” done better. So, to begin, I think you need to let go of the guilt related to treating her as you were taught to do. [I say this in relation to what you described – I want to ensure all who read this that abuse, physical or psychological, cannot and should not be treated so cavalierly].
    At any rate, I think that perhaps you should read about the development of a toddler. There are quite remarkable changes being made at this period of life (as I guess there are through all periods). I find the ages 3 through 8 particularly enchanting and interesting. If you understand the stages, and can revel in each “level” I think you might find it easier to talk with your child with understanding and respect.

    Best of luck. Only a good mother would “worry” about this.

  12. Research the developmental stage of a THREE year old. All three year olds are inefficient. They can spend hours looking at a bug. They don’t care and don’t have the concept to put on their shoes, get out the door – whatever. I suggest learning to meditate and calm your own mind. Patience and love are the values that are worthwhile in this universe. If you are responding in an impatient and condescending way it is because you feel impatient and angry yourself – you will need to change these feelings to love and acceptance. Look at this wonderful human being in your life and give them what they need instead of expecting them to be and behave how you need. Child development books and meditations.

  13. Dear Frayed Patience,

    First I would like to assure you that even having parents that do not exhibit the patterns you are aware of – lose patience and “talk down” to, judgmental and intolerant of mistakes and inefficiencies – does not guarantee good self esteem. What I hope is this knowledge will help take some of the heat out of your self criticism.

    That you have written into the column shows your concern and care for your daughter and I have no doubt this same concern and care is something she sees as well – children are great observers of both productive and unproductive behaviors.

    As a parent one of the best books I read on parenting that helped me to take the “personal” (ie reae ..impatience, strong tone, wanting to say something mean [yes, like my mum] and taking her behavior as a personal affront to my parenting [needing her to be good so that I felt like I was good] was the book 123Magic by Thomas W. Phelan.

    It wasn’t the 123 that was the magic – it was the understanding and normalization of my responses by the author that began to help me feel less like “bad”, impatient parent and more like a normal mom who hadn’t learned the kind of skills I needed to be patent and consistent with the wiggly and sometimes “inefficient” ways of a young child.

    Another thing I began to do was to ask myself “What would I like to have happen?” – when she “mis-behaved” or did something I wasn’t happy about, didn’t listen to me et ..I would ask myself this question. What it did for me was let my deeper desires rise to the surface .. what would I like to have happen? It was always related to love – not hurry, worry, fear or efficiency – not square corners, but soft edges, round hugs, giggles, laughter.

    What would you like to have happen?

  14. Dear Frayed,
    I can still remember like it was yesterday when I was struggling with the same feelings you are with my now 25-year old son back when he was a toddler. At the time, I belonged to a mom’s group and I still remember bringing up this same issue of getting extremely frustrated and upset with my active and curious little boy, responding to him with not-so mature responses. One of the moms in my group said something that really helped me. She said that when I start feeling that way to try and take a step forward instead of in opposition to the behavior. Mostly they are trying to learn how to manage life and that’s what we are there for, and when they are not quite doing the job, we get to have the honor of showing them how to do it with the love that only a parent can provide. Somehow that really rang a bell for me. And surprisingly, the behaviors got better. We changed the whole dynamic by me taking on my important role. Good luck—these are precious times.

  15. I remember so well those feelings with all of my 3 children. The idea that helped me repeatedly(I wish I could remember who suggested it to me) was when I was getting mad at my oldest when he was 3, I would stop myself short and think to myself– what am I saying– “Stop acting like a 3-year-old? He IS a 3-year-old.” And I would laugh at myself and let my harsh feelings slip away. I had to use this formula alot. (By the way, it works when they’re 16, too!).

  16. I agree with Jefri. She’s only 3. You may be expecting too much of a three year old. try to relax and enjoy her. These years go by too fast.

  17. Dear Frayed,
    I think just by asking the question you are breaking the pattern of ‘judgemental and intolerant’ parenting with which you were raised- bravo!
    I am mother to 3 beautifully inefficient people (ages 2, 4, and 6). My 6 year old is a ‘pleaser’ and jumps to it at the slightest request. My 4 year old does not transition well and needs lots of encouragement and support before she can move to the next activity. I have been reading “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Kids Will Talk” and “The Explosive Child”- both great books and are helping a lot!
    My current strategy is to let my daughter be in control of the things she is capable of. Whereas I used to say, “Okay, time to go, let’s put shoes on!” now I say, “Hey kiddo! We’re going to leave soon, can you tell me what you need to do to be ready?” and she pipes up with, “put my shoes on!” and runs to do it.
    Good luck finding out what works well with your little one! And good luck taming the ‘adult temper tantrums’ we’re all prone to. 🙂

  18. I recommend “How to Talk So Children Will Listen, and Listen So that Children Will Talk.” It’s a quick read and extremely practical with specific suggestions for what parents can say (or not say) in a variety of situations. And p.s., everything in it applies to talking and listening to adults, too.

  19. You sound like a loving mother who doesn’t want her daughter to go through the same experiences she did as a daughter.

    I suggest using a 3-prong approach.
    1. Forgive
    2. Ask for forgiveness
    3. Reflect

    Do you need to forgive you father for his parenting style? If so, write a letter (which you are not required to share unless you want to) to your father explaining how it made you feel when he was judgmental and intolerant of your mistakes and inefficiencies. Let him know that you were just a child trying to learn through your own experiences and that you forgive him.

    Write a letter to your daughter asking her to forgive you for your mistakes and inefficiencies. Acknowledge that you are still learning and growing and make mistakes as well. Let her know your heartfelt love and joy for her. Once again, this letter does not need to be shared, but hopefully will provide a path to a change of heart, both on how you view yourself and how you view your daughter, which can lead to a change in how you respond to your daughter.

    Take a few minutes to reflect, as often as needed, on your daughter’s strengths and what makes her a unique individual. Re-enforce these strengths as you teach her ways to overcome her weaknesses.

    A final thought. Allow the same patience with yourself that you are wanting to demonstrate with your daughter.

  20. I also recommend “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” – which oddly works with executives, too, by the way. Also, the Ilg and Ames series that I always referred to as “Your x-Year-Old” for specific developmental advice(look for “Your 3 Year Old”). My son is now 22, and I am grateful that I worked so hard on respectful communication.

  21. First: Get rid of the idea that a three year old should be “efficient.” Being three means experimenting, which means not getting it quite right. It’s called learning from experience.
    Second: Set aside times to just listen to her. No judgement. Not using what you hear as a platform for a follow-up lecture.
    Third: Just hug her often.

  22. Much of the above information is good, and should be read and used. However, if you are like many people, (myself and my adult daughter included) you may not remember this in the “heat of the moment.” Start by coming up with a short statement that you can use as a mantra (“She is only 3 and this is her way of becoming her own person.”) Practice saying it often during the day – even at quiet moments. If you continue to practice it often enough, you will find yourself thinking of this statement at those “heated” moments. Eventually, you will remember to slow down during those times when you need more patience.

    (My granddaughter is just now turning 2 and has a very strong personality. My daughter is a single mother at this time and occasionally needs to be reminded that the child’s behavior-while irritating-is actually a good expression of her individuality. I even have to remind my husband of this on occasion.) So try it. It works. If you fall and lose patience, go back and talk to her. Use simple words as she likely won’t understand complex statements. “Daddy is sorry he yelled at you. Can I help you do this? Remember that I love you, even when I am mad.”

  23. Do you need someone to help you change your behavior? Tell your child what you are trying to change…. they won’t hesitate to call you on it….in the heat of the moment…. while people are watching….and you will make every effort to make sure that never happens again. This is a very powerful (possibly dangerously embarrassing) tactic that is not for the faint of heart. If you are not secure enough with yourself to apologized to your child in front of others, you best not try this.

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